1. Neighbourhoods
May 15, 2023

Aren’t low-traffic neighbourhoods supposed to be a good thing?

Improved air quality, safe streets and a shift towards greener spaces. So why the backlash against LTNs?

By Alex Summers

When talking about low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), London springs to mind. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK government has invested in ways to make cycling and walking easier by, for instance, increasing cycle lanes or pavements.

“LTNs offer a cost-effective way of delivering safe and attractive streets for walking and cycling by preventing through traffic from using residential neighbourhoods to avoid main roads (often known as ‘rat running‘), while retaining local access for residents and visitors,” TfL said.

Low-traffic neighbourhood sign in the UK
.Low-traffic Neighbourhoods have received further government support after the pandemic. (Photo via Shutterstock)

However, this past weekend saw “thousands” descend on Oxford to protest LTNs being implemented in the city as the initiative moves beyond the UK capital. (Though there seemed to be a combination of those against LTNs and those marching against the notion of a 15-minute city.) But why all the fuss?

What is a low-traffic neighbourhood?

An LTN is, quite simply, a residential area designed to reduce traffic and make the streets safer. Something many have argued for in congested cities such as London.

LTNs typically involve a combination of road closures, speed limit reductions, and other traffic-calming measures to reduce traffic speeds and volumes. There is often some disruption as construction work is required, but the long-term benefits are meant to outweigh short-term disruption. 

After all, the aims of LTNs are to increase the quality of life for the local residents, improve air quality and create a greener, more sustainable community. As well as a safer one, of course, as getting the number of vehicles on streets and roads lower should yield fewer accidents. The police have also issued statements to say they believe an LTN can reduce crime. 

This should all, in theory, create a pleasant and inviting environment for pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motorised vehicle users, and a general shift to more sustainable modes of transport. LTNs should ideally be integrated with public transport networks and other sustainable travel options.

However, designs usually include adequate parking and loading areas, and encourage a mix of land use, in general, so as not to fully cut communities off or create counterintuitive planning decisions.  

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They are comparable to the 2016 superblocks initiative used to best effect in Barcelona, where traffic within a group of city blocks was designated to particular travel routes to improve local areas. The scheme has been deemed a success by many.

However, some still don’t care for the initiative. 

Why are people protesting LTNs?

Despite all the proposed benefits of LTNs, many believe they simply don’t work. The majority of protesters aren’t against safer streets and better air quality, they argue that the traffic is simply rerouted. 

This would extend commute times for many, delay deliveries or make ride-hailing services such as Uber or taxis more expensive as journey times increase.   

Controversially, some in the protests in Oxford, and indeed other cities with proposed LTNs such as Bristol, have started to believe in conspiracy theories regarding LTNs. There is a belief that LTNs are somehow a version of government control and are linked to climate change deniers. So far, there is no evidence to support this. 

Specifically, Oxford saw far-right activists and other extremist groups boycotting local issues like LTNs by assuming that these schemes are dangerous and are aimed to control people. The Guardian reported that opponents have vandalised LTNs signs making them illegible. The far-right group Patriotic Alternative also participated in a march in February 2023 against 15-minute cities and LTNs. claiming they enforce a Hunger Games-like mindset among people.

Nick Lowles, HnH’s chief executive, said: “The majority of people campaigning against traffic measures don’t step into harmful territory. However, the far right and their conspiracy theorist fellow travellers in this space base their arguments on fundamentally antisemitic ideas of shadowy global elites controlling things from afar.”

[Read more: Ban cars: Why cities are embracing the call for car-free streets]

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